A cut too far?

Today I wrote to the Department for Education to express the concerns of a number of school business leaders. It was both an easy and also a hard letter to write.

It was easy because I wanted to make the case for sufficient funding for all schools nationally. It was easy also easy because it’s something I strongly believe in; I spend most of my waking hours working to improve outcomes for pupils and to improve the school system that educates them.

But is was also hard because, however hard it is for us in schools to hear, there are still (some) efficiencies to be found. We need to enter into a constructive dialogue with the DFE to debate which efficiencies are reasonable and which are not. This is a harder thing to do because it involved conceding ground and accepting that there are some things I and my fellow school leaders can still do better and more efficiently.

In the next few weeks, I will unpick some of the harder home truths that are on my mind around efficiency and share my thoughts via this blog, but for today I am simply going to share two of the points I made.

The first is about need, the second about the importance of being pragmatic about what efficiencies can be achieved:

We need more than the bare minimum

“…the very nature of schools is that the are made up of real human beings. Our pupils are not simply a headcount in a funding formula, or data in an IDACI table. They are complicated living, breathing children. They are complex and unpredictable and might need to call on our help unexpectedly at an unplanned moment.
A difficult issue at home or mediating between pupils can tie up a member of staff for hours. Child protection cases can involved senior leaders and pastoral managers for days at a time. Time is often of the essence in responding to these additional issues.
Whilst it is technically possible to design leadership structures which are lean, efficient and pared to the theoretical bone, we have to have sufficient money in the system to carry the additional personnel required to support children and remove barriers to learning. It is an unpopular thing to say in the current climate, but a degree of planned inefficiency or spare capacity is necessary. We need funding at a level that gives us the capacity to respond to this unpredictability…”

Efficiency savings

“As school leaders, we firmly believe that additional funding for school budgets will be needed. The system can’t be squeezed as thin as some think it can. There is an overly optimistic belief by the DfE that the necessary efficiency savings can eventually be realised from school budgets.
However, a proportion of the efficiencies are merely theoretical and will not actually come into fruition because they depend on significant behavioural changes by governors and school leaders.
School leaders attitudes and behaviour towards efficiency savings are influenced by significant factors which mitigate against them achieving the targeted savings. The current high stakes accountability climate and the requirement for leadership teams to consider their own pay burden on the budget means school leaders are unlikely to be as ruthless as the efficiency savings require…

…in short, we are effectively asking school staff to look each other in the eye and consider making themselves or one (or more) of their number redundant. No wonder efficiency is such an unpalatable message